Continuing with our talk about the benefits of a Japanese diet, we are going to be talking about wasabi today. Wasabi, a bright green spicy paste, is a common Japanese condiment that has gained popularity in the West in recent years. It is eaten with sashimi, sushi and soba meals in Japan and is a popular flavor of snacks, from wasabi coated peas (pictured above) through to wasabi Doritos, and even wasabi flavored drinks!
The wasabi plant is a root vegetable that is also known as “Japanese horseradish”. The root is incredibly potent and hot with an intricate flavor and a quick “after burn”. It’s this complex flavor and the quickly passing heat that lends itself to Japanese cuisine. In Japan, restaurants serve wasabi that is freshly grated and pounded into a paste at the time the customer orders – the paste only takes fifteen minutes to lose its flavor once it has been prepared. Some establishments serve dishes with the wasabi root in tact along with a grater for the customer to prepare their own paste – it doesn’t get any fresher than that!
Real Wasabi vs. Quasi-Wasabi
However, wasabi found in most, if not all, Japanese restaurants and supermarkets in Western countries is technically not wasabi, but a cheaper imitation. This is generally made of horseradish, mustard, and food coloring, and does not give the complex flavor or contain the same nutritional values of true wasabi. Genuine wasabi grows naturally in riverbeds and streams throughout Japan, is quite hard to cultivate and can be expensive to manufacture. You would be incredibly lucky to find it in the USA outside of upmarket Japanese restaurants.
Wasabi, a Cancer Fighting Agent?
Real wasabi is rich in the cancer-fighting antioxidant, isothiocyanates. By stimulating and toning the liver, these phytochemicals help the body to remove cancer-causing toxins. Additionally, they have been shown to inhibit microbe growth and act as an antibacterial agent which is particularly effective for oral hygiene. Thanks to this antimicrobial effect, serving sashimi and other raw dishes with wasabi can help to limit food contamination. It has also been shown to be anti-inflammatory, reduce blood pressure, and work as an antioxidant to fight cancer cells.
How to Properly Use Wasabi: Western Misconceptions
A common mistake in the West is to mix wasabi with dipping sauce. This destroys the intricacy of wasabi and simply results in a spicy, salty mess with no depth of flavor. The correct way of using the condiment is to add a small dollop onto the piece of food (usually sashimi or sushi), then dip it into the sauce. As with all Japanese food, it is to be enjoyed slowly and with attention given to the complex flavors. As it’s an incredibly potent condiment, it is advised to begin with a tiny amount – the smallest dollop you can pick up with a chop stick. From there, you will grow accustomed to the heat and be able to manage larger amounts without flinching!